These days it seems like all the really good math programs either come from Asian countries or are based on Asian teaching methods. RightStart Mathematics is part of the second group—designed to help American grade school students actually understand mathematical concepts, it was created after educator Dr. Joan Cotter researched and implemented Japanese math teaching methods. The result is a fairly intuitive course that utilizes a modified abacus to demonstrate numerical concepts and algorithmic solving tools.
How Do These Work?
Rather than covering specific grades, each level is for kids who have achieved an objectively assessed skill set. Level A is basically for kindergarten; Level B contains all the Level A information at a more advanced pace, plus more. Levels C, D and E build on the foundations of the initial books, teaching 1st5th graders everything from basic mathematical functions to probability and bar graphs. Content ensures students can meet national standards while providing plenty of information most kids don't encounter until much later.
For those starting in Level C or later, the Transition Lessons book brings kids up to speed before they begin working through the textbooks themselves. The more advanced book you intend to have them start with, the more transition lessons they'll have to complete. Appropriate lessons are clearly delineated, and lead nicely into each of the main texts. Because there is no formal grade level assigned to any of these texts, they make good remedial coursework for 4th6th graders who are behind or struggling with the principles of mathematics.
For students who have completed through Level E, Cotter offers RightStart Mathematics: A HandsOn Geometric Approach. It isn't a typical geometry text as no formal proofs are offered, though it does introduce students to the fundamental elements of the discipline. Also, it breaks the normal rule of algebrabeforegeometry and offers geometry instruction before high school. For algebra, Cotter suggests the VideoText Interactive Algebra series, which she believes teaches the fundamental principles of algebra.
Beyond the core texts, RightStart offers a number of supplementary books designed to guide kids toward specific ways of thinking about math and problem solving. Cotter's goal isn't that kids can rattle off math "facts"—she wants students trained to think mathematically, to visualize math problems and actually solve them rather than applying a set of memorized steps to reach a solution. This is a highly visual series. Students use all kinds of manipulatives and math strategies to get a handle on the meaning of the basic functions and many of the more difficult concepts.
The main manipulatives are a specially designed abacus that includes place value markings (the AL Abacus) and a number of cards used to play math games. The abacus helps kids actually see what they're learning, while the cards allow them to put in practice what they know in a fun environment free of the "burden" of schoolwork. Cotter insists the only people who enjoy flashcards are the ones who don't need them, and the card games are meant to be played outside the classroom or school time, and are simply for reinforcement. There are plenty of other manipulatives also used, however, and RightStart recommends you buy everything you need for all the levels up front, as it will reduce the cost and complications down the road.
Our Honest Opinion:
A lot of math curriculum designers are beginning to realize the need to train kids to understand mathematics, rather than simply showing them how to solve specific kinds of problems. Such training necessarily demands more time than what has become the traditional approach—rote memorization and endless boring drill. Cotter's program will take considerable time both for the parent or teacher and for the student. If it means greater success in math, however, time seems a relatively small price to pay.
There are a lot of RightStart detractors and skeptics who repeatedly cite the time commitment as reason to stay away from the series, but few of them challenge the program's structure. In some regards the verdict is still out: RightStart remains a fairly recent development in math education and is just now achieving a measure of popularity. The handson, visual element of the abacus and cards offer an edge many programs ignore (or abandon too early), and Cotter's extensively scripted lesson plans make this a great choice for parents willing to devote some extra time to math instruction.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

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